Back to School: School districts get final say in back to school plans

NEOSHO, Mo. – The halls of Neosho High School may be empty now, but in just a few short weeks they’ll be filled with students again. The 2021-2022 school year starts on August 24th in Neosho. So the pressure is on for district leaders to decide how their “back to school” will look.

“Our expectation for the re-opening of school, in mid-June, was that it would be pretty much like a normal opening,” says Neosho School District Superintendent Dr. Jim Cummins. “Once we started to see the rise in case we had to kind of go back and rethink.”

Cummins explains the district is right in the middle of re-thinking those plans right now, “taking in information.”

On Friday, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released its recommendations for the 2021-2022 school year — adding more recommendations for Neosho to consider. DESE’s recommendations largely mirror recommendations put out by the CDC, last updated July 9th. In a nutshell, DESE recommends school districts promote vaccinations, follow social distancing whenever possible (especially indoors), administer screening tests, continue contact tracing, and have unvaccinated students wear face coverings. Most of it is just that though — recommendations — with local districts having the final say.

“I think DESE has realized that communities didn’t respond too well last year to some of the mandates and some of the expectations,” says Cummins. “But by the same token, they have to provide guidance that offers the best way to keep students and staff safe.”

Neosho, and other districts in the area, will have a new challenge to deal with this year that’s not quite like the challenges they faced last year. There are different recommendations from the CDC for students and teachers who are vaccinated and students and teachers who are unvaccinated — even if they are in the same building. Cummins says navigating that situation without creating more division will be one of their biggest challenges.

“We don’t want to create a vaccinated versus unvaccinated rift,” says Cummins. “But by the same token we want to encourage people to get the vaccine and do things that will help us stay safe. And to add more complication to it, we educate students all the way down to three years old, and from three to eleven there’s not a vaccine available. We have that dynamic at the lower grades versus the upper grades where it’s more about masks, no masks. So we’ve got a few challenges still to work through”

When it comes to teachers who are unvaccinated it’s a different kind of challenge.

“The guidance says if they’re asymptomatic and they’re vaccinated, they don’t have to quarantine. They can keep teaching right along. Then when you get to the teachers that are unvaccinated, that becomes a little bit more of a challenge. COVID leave has changed, so now is it sick days? And how do you handle their absences?” Says Cummins. “So there are some things that bring some intricacies this year that didn’t exist last year. But the question really still is how best we can educate our students and keep them and our staff safe.”

One topic the CDC has left little wiggle room on though is riding on the bus. Via a federal mandate, the CDC says all passengers and drivers of a school bus must wear a face covering.

Cummins says they are working to have next years plan finished by August 9th, so that the school board can discuss it during that evenings meeting. Cummins says he wants to get it done a few weeks before school starts to that parents can decide if in-person or online learning works the best for their students.

The Carthage School District also has a draft plan on their website, here. Carthage Superintendent Mark Baker says the school board is currently reviewing it, and that it will more than likely change between now and the beginning of the school year.

Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidance: https://dese.mo.gov/media/pdf/covid-mo-k-12-school-guidance?fbclid=IwAR3TIdclWoKZi7efcem0JKGwsknEJMCt4aj6ATqxaE6_5YWPD67sym4bK2s

CDC guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/k-12-guidance.html